What a tease Thursday was. The preseason is off to a great start, and now all of a sudden we have a full week with no games to look forward to. On the plus side, we'll soon be treated to three Patriots games in 10 days, which should be a lot of fun and provide a lot to talk about. In the meantime, though, I thought it would be good to continue my bubble watch series by examining the Dane Fletcher effect.
Prior to Thursday's special teams debacle, and even though he was still technically a bubble player, I had Fletcher as a lock to make the final roster. He could play all three linebacker spots, had experience at end, and was a key member of the special teams unit. However, Fletcher was waived by the Patriots today and won't be seeing the field for any team in 2012.
Losing Fletcher was definitely a blow, but ultimately his injury doesn't have a huge impact on the starting defensive lineup. Where it does have an impact, however, is on which of the Patriots bubble players makes the team as the rotational linebackers. Fletcher's primary role in 2012 was going to be on special teams and as an additional interior presence in various packages, and with Fletcher gone, it's time for someone else to step up and fill the role. The obvious choice here is Dont'a Hightower, who played all over the place in college and seems slated to make an almost immediate impact as the primary backup to Brandon Spikes. However, Hightower is a roster lock, and this series ain't called "Roster Locks," so instead we're going to be looking at some of the linebackers currently on the bubble and breaking down what their role on the team will be going forward. I've listed these linebackers in order of best chance to make the team to lowest chance to make the team, based on little more than my own opinion, observations, and research into how their 2012 season is going thus far.
Bobby Carpenter. Although Carpenter has never been able to live up to his first round status, he is still a very intelligent player who has been impressing the coaching staff in camp thus far. He has good instincts, looked good in his reserve role against the Saints, and seems to have the inside track on spelling the starters. He has been taking reps with the starters since day one, and I have yet to hear anyone have a negative thing to say about him. Carpenter seems primed to become another member of the long list of players who experience a career revival under Bill Belichick, who is one of the best in the business at getting the most out of his guys. I had Carpenter closer to the inside of the bubble than the outside before Fletcher's injury; now that Fletcher is out, I think that Carpenter has an excellent chance of making the team. I wouldn't go so far as to call him a lock just yet, but at this point I'd be very surprised if he wasn't still around come September.
Tracy White. In my opinion, Tracy White is the player that benefits the most from Fletcher's injury. While he's serviceable at best as a down linebacker, the truth is that White is a special teams ace and provides a lot of value on the punt and kicking units. With Fletcher on the roster and players like Matthew Slater, James Ihedigbo, and Josh Barrett contributing on special teams as well, White became somewhet expendable. However, now that Fletcher is out, the Patriots are going to need another proven special teamer to fill Fletcher's role, and White could very well be that guy.
Niko Koutovides. I think Koutovides looked strong against the run on Thursday, and one of the tighter training camp battles is between him and Jeff Tarpinian for one of the last spots on the roster. I'm giving Niko the edge right now, because I felt the plays he made on Thursday were a little more impactful than those made by Tarpinian, but this ranking could flip-flop as early as tomorrow. Koutovides also has that special teams experience that Fletcher brought to the table, which could help his chances. If cuts were tomorrow, I don't think he's on the team at the end of the day. However, he still has a few weeks left to show his stuff, and maybe he can fight his way onto the roster with a solid rest of camp and some statement preseason games.
Jeff Tarpinian. Tarpinian had a sneaky good first preseason game on Thursday; he saw 35 snaps and recorded a team-high six tackles on the day. He was also seen taking reps with the first-team during Sunday's practice, and has a history of making contributions on special teams. While Tarpinian may ultimately be most famous for being one of those guys last season who just had a picture on the bottom of the screen as opposed to a video intro as the injury-riddled Patriots defense was just looking for warm bodies to fill in the holes, he is well-liked by the coaching staff and is an extremely hard worker. Like I said above, if I had to pick between the two right now, I'd go with Koutovides, but that could easily change with a solid week of practices from Tarpinian (who is already seeing more first team reps than Niko is, so what do I know).
Mike Rivera. Even with Fletcher out, I'd still consider Rivera a longshot to make the team. Undrafted out of Kansas in 2009, he has yet to play in a regular season NFL game despite having stints with the Bears Dolphins, Packers, and Titans. He played surprisingly well on Thursday, registering four tackles, but it's still going to be an uphill climb for him to ever really see the field. Rivera joined the Pats as a member of the practice squad in November of last year, and that's where I think he'll ultimately end up. The hole left by Fletcher does create a roster spot, however, and maybe Rivera can prove that he's worthy of being out there.
I'm definitely looking forward to observing how the linebacker situation, which was already an interesting competition, plays out over the course of this week, a week that has already been billed by Belichick as an extremely important one. I think that by this time next week, a fair number of questions will be answered, and we'll at least have an idea of how this position is going to settle out.